Friday, July 31, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge: Trilby

For Back to the Classics 2020 category "Classic with a name in the title", I read Trilby by George du Maurier. This would have also worked for Paris in July, had I participated...though I actually read this back in April. Reading Trilby was intriguing to me before I even read the first paragraph because:

1. It was written by Daphne du Maurier’s grandfather,
2. It is the origin of the term “Svengali”.

I doubt many people know what “Svengali” means now or use it casually, but it was once as common as the term “Romeo” or “Scrooge” - one of those words where you know what it means but you don’t necessarily link the origin of it with a book. I wonder someday if that will happen with, say “Indiana Jones” or “Scooby-Doo”? A Svengali is someone who manipulates another (usually an older man and a younger woman), often using his hypnotic powers, for a sinister or selfish purpose.

So what is the book about you ask? Shut up already about word origins! It is a nostalgic look at la vie Bohème in 1850s Paris which du Maurier experienced firsthand in his youth. I have not doubt that the book’s popularity, when it was published in 1894, must have been in part due to its scandalous depiction of bohemian life with its more casual mores about sex and nudity compared to that of Victorian England. 

In it, three young men, Laird (who is Scottish), Taffy and Little Billee (who are English) share a Left Bank studio in Paris where they meet Trilby, the beautiful, jejune orphan whose alcoholic parents, an Irish gentleman down on his luck and a Scottish barmaid, more or less left her to grow up on her own on the streets of Paris. Now, she models (in the all together, naturally) for painters and sculptors to support herself and her younger brother. All three of the men, who hope to become artists themselves, are in love with Trilby. And Trilby is a lovely character, generous and uncomplicated, she has a real zest for life. Especially enamored is sensitive soul, Little Billee, whose love she returns. Unfortunately, she has also caught the eye of the manipulative musician Svengali. Alas, Trilby knows she can never be Billee’s wife, even if she goes straight and stops modeling, since he is British middle class and she is little more than a street waif. This may be bohemian Paris, but the rules are still different for men and women. Are you smelling the melodrama here? Because it is cooking! The plot goes cuckoo when Billee returns to England a broken man and he runs into Trilby again. But I don't want to spoil it...

I am glad to have read it, I hope someday it will serve me well in a pub quiz or a round of Trivial Pursuit. But it was a bit meandering - there was lots of description that slowed me down (George re-living his salad days, no doubt). Not to mention the untranslated French, also not to mention the untranslated French written phonetically in a German accent. Sacré bleu! I usually dislike it when authors write in dialect. 

Also, it is very anti-Semitic. Svengali, like Fagin in Oliver Twist is not a bad and a Jew. He is bad because he is a Jew. This isn't uncommon to encounter in older books but still, it is discomforting to read. So be forewarned. However, if it sounds interesting to you, it is free for download from Project Gutenburg. 😃